Friends and Frenemies
What a Samuel Beckett play reveals about gossip and friendship.
Posted Mar 10, 2020
Samuel Beckett has a brief play, Come and Go. In it, three women who are childhood friends sit on a bench. Each woman, in turn, leaves the bench, and as soon as she is out of earshot, the other two say something unkind about her. (The viewer does not hear what exactly is being said.) When the absent friend returns, another one stands up and leaves, and we see the same, temporary two-against-one alliance but with a new target.
Beckett’s heroines are hardly unusual. There is, upon occasion, a streak of malice in friendship. We may fail to rejoice wholeheartedly in a friend’s success or we may draw attention to a friend’s character flaw in his or her absence. Would the women in Come and Go be surprised to learn that they too are the subject of gossip? That they too are victims, and not just victimizers? Possibly. Writer Anthony Trollope has this to say about our often wishful belief that others will be nothing but charitable in our absence:
Considering how much we are all given to discuss the characters of others, and discuss them often not in the strictest spirit of charity, it is singular how little we are inclined to think that others can speak ill-naturedly of us, and how angry and hurt we are when proof reaches us that they have done so.
Trollope’s observation applies with full force in the case of friends. We may think that friends, surely, would always defend us when we are not there to defend ourselves! And quite certainly, they sometimes do. But probably not always. Not all of them. We must not be surprised by this. For if we reflect carefully, we will find that we too do not spring to our friends’ defense on each and every occasion, and we may not fully rejoice in their successes either. (In some cases, such as commenting on a friend's flaw of character, we may think that, since we do it with love, there is nothing for the friend to be upset about and yet, how many of us would welcome comments on our flaws in our absence, be it comments made by friends who otherwise love us?)
Even those we perceive as particularly noble people by nature may prove capable of a streak of malice in friendship. Thus, actress Claire Bloom, in an interview for a profile of her friend Gore Vidal, says: “I’ve never seen the cynical side of him that comes out in public. I’ve never heard him say anything personally hurtful about any of his friends. Gore makes a great division here. I love gossip about my friends. He loves gossip about public people.” Vidal, however, countered: “It was I who wrote: whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” If Vidal's words hit you in the gut, don’t worry. First, as you see, you are in very good company. Second, well, you can derive a hopeful message from a friend's triumph: If your friend can do it, probably so can you.
Freud, who was not an optimist about human nature, remarked on the hidden dualities in some friendships. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he suggests that sometimes, friend and enemy for him coincide "in the same person." He relates a story of a childhood friendship with his half-brother’s son, Johann. He and Johann loved each other, Freud observes, but according to older relatives, the two boys “scuffled with and accused each other” as well.
Freud goes on to say that this type of mix between positive and negative emotion toward the same person exists in adult friendships also but there is a twist: In childhood, the two valences alternate. We love one minute and hate the other. Not so in adulthood, when our psychologies and emotions are more complex.
One could imagine that the heroines in Beckett’s Come and Go were close friends in just the way Sigmund and Johann were: They had pure friendship checkered by episodes of animosity. It is possible that the reason our childhood friendships often seem better and purer to us than those we have later in life is that children can “scuffle with and accuse each other” without a falling out. It is as though they allow themselves a kind of purge of any negative emotion that may have accumulated, a little catharsis of sorts, so they can go back to being friends afterward. Adults typically cannot manage that, so if they detect any negativity, either their own toward a friend or on the part of a friend directed at them, they must go their separate ways or else accept that their friend is, in part, frenemy.
I should note also that the phenomenon of good will mixed with ill characterizes many relationships, not just friendships. A parent’s love and a sibling’s love may not be as pure as one might hope. There could be ambivalence in love (even parental love that should in principle be unconditional), much as in friendship.
There has been a good deal of discussion of frenemies recently, for instance, of how one might protect oneself against such unreal friends. Many authors have shared useful insights. What I wish to suggest here, however, is that, much as there is no sharp boundary between friends and enemies because there are frenemies, so also there is no boundary between friends and frenemies. At best, there is an elusive boundary. If you really wanted to make sure none of your friends are frenemies ever, in the least bit, you may find yourself with very few friends. While our friends generally love us, they may nonetheless inch into frenemy territory upon occasion. Our siblings and parents may too. This should be no cause for alarm. For so—we must reluctantly acknowledge—may we. Perhaps, if we take a charitable view of others and forgive the imperfections in their love for us, they will do the same in turn.
Beckett, S. (1984). Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett. London, UK: Faber and Faber.
Susan Barnes, "Behind The Face of the Gifted Bitch: a Profile of Gore Vidal, Novelist, Playwright, International Socialite," The Sunday Times, September 16, 1973.
Trollope, A. (1857/1983). Barchester Towers. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.
Freud, S. (1899/1955). The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey. New York, NY: Basic Books.